MET:Cognitive Approaches to Learning
This page originally authored by Gillian Gunderson (2009).
Cognitive approaches to learning are concerned with how information is processed by learners.
Cognitive theories view students as active in “an internal learning process that involves memory, thinking, reflection, abstraction, motivation, and meta-cognition” (Ally, 2008). Students organize old knowledge, scripts, and schema, find relationships, and link new information to old (Cognitive Theories of Learning, n.d.). Ertmer and Newby (1993) note that “learning is a change in the state of knowledge, and is a mental activity where an active learner internally codes and structures knowledge” (p. 58). They believe that “the real focus of the cognitive approach is on changing the learner by encouraging him/her to use appropriate learning strategies” (Ertmer & Newby, 1993, p. 59).
Learn more about the definition of cognitivism in this video.
History of Cognitivism
Cognitivist theories emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a reaction against the previously dominant paradigm; whereas behaviourism focused on observable behaviour and the response of humans to environmental stimuli, cognitivism took into account the human mind and complex processes of the mind such as thinking, problem solving, and memory ( Schunk 2004/2007b).
Noam Chomsky challenged behavioral approaches in the 1950’s through his critique of B.F. Skinner’s book, Verbal Behavior (Chomsky, 1967). Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory (later known as Social Cognitive Theory), stressed observational learning and was seen as a bridge between behaviorist and cognitive learning theories. Currently, cognitivism underlies the major theoretical perspectives of learning (Schunk, 2004/2007b).
Classifying Cognitivist Theories
Behaviorist, cognitivist, and constructivist ideas and principles overlap in many areas (Ally, 2008). Therefore, classifying theories is challenging; some theories fit in more than one classification and different sources classify the theories in different ways. For example, in some sources Jerome Bruner‘s Discovery Learning Theory is classified as cognitive (Using the Web for Learning: Background, n.d.) and not developmental (Cognitive Theories of Learning, n.d.). In other sources, Bruner is deemed developmental (Driscoll, 2005/2007). In still other sources, Bruner is considered constructivist (Learning Theories Knowledgebase, 2009). In addition, Albert Bandura is often classified as a behaviorist; however, Bandura, himself, claimed that he was never a behaviorist (From Behaviorism to Social Cognition??, n.d.).
ETEC 512 Classifications
Course materials in ETEC 512 classified theorists as follows:
- Social Cognitive Theory (Social Learning Theory) by Bandura
- Bandura focused on observational learning and self-efficacy (Zeldin, Britner, & Pajares, 2008).
- Information Processing Theories by various theorists
- The computer was seen as a metaphor for the mind (Schunk 2004/2007a).
- Information was input and the mind processed the information, creating output (Information Processing, n.d.).
- Assimilation Theory (Meaningful Learning) by Ausubel
- Ausubel focused on reception learning; he noted that the learner was active and thus he differentiated between rote and meaningful learning (Novak, 1998/2007).
- Ausubel stressed the importance of the advance organizer.
- Genetic Epistemology by Piaget
- Piaget believed that experience with the environment affected knowledge acquisition.
- His four stages of development detail how humans develop cognitively.
- Sociocultural Theory by Vygotsky
- Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) details the difference between what a learner can do independently and what the leaner can do with help; independent learning may not take place, but scaffolded learning can.
- Discovery Learning by Bruner
- Bruner describes representational stages, and emphasizes exploring the environment.
Concept Map of Cognitive and Developmental Theories
Using the computer metaphor of input and output, this concept map of the theories organizes the main principles. The component referring to an individual is shown on the left hand side of each theory diagram, while the social contribution is shown on the right hand side.
Other Cognitive Theories
- ACT Theory by Anderson
- ARCS by Keller
- Attribution Theory by Weiner
- Component Display Theory by Merrill
- Conditions of Learning by Gagne
- Dual Coding Theory by Paivio
- Elaboration Theory by Reigeluth
- Gestalt Theory by Wertheimer
- Information Processing Theory by George Miller
- Mental Models
- Modes of Learning by Rumelhart & Norman
- Multiple Intelligences by Gardner
- Schema Theory by Bartlett
- Script Theory by Schank
Read more about theories and theorists in Cognitive Sciences.
Key Components of Cognitive Learning Approaches
Ertmer and Newby (1993) describe the commonalities that exist between the many different cognitive theories:
How Learning Occurs
- mental activity: internal coding and structuring by the learner
- change occurs in state of knowledge
Factors Influencing Learning
- environmental conditions
- practice with corrective feedback
- processes of mental planning, goal-setting, and organizational strategies
- way learners attend to, code, transform, rehearse, store and retrieve information
- learners’ thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, and values
Role of Memory
- information is stored in an organized, meaningful manner; need to relate new information to prior knowledge
- function of how information is stored in memory
- occurs when learner understands how to apply knowledge in different contexts
Types of Learning Best Explained
- complex forms of learning (reasoning, problem-solving, information-processing)
- communicate/transfer knowledge in an efficient effective manner: simplification, standardization (knowledge analyzed, decomposed, simplified into basic building blocks; irrelevant information eliminated)
- feedback to help create accurate mental representations and connections
- learner and task analysis: determine learner’s predisposition to learning; look at existing mental structures to design instruction so it can be readily assimilated
Major Tasks of Teacher/Designer
- understand that learners have different backgrounds/experiences which can impact learning outcomes
- determine the most effective manner in which to organize and structure new information to work with these backgrounds/experiences
- arrange practice with feedback so that the new information is effectively and efficiently assimilated and /or accommodated with the learner’s cognitive structure
(Ertmer & Newby, 1993, pp. 58-61)
Considerations for Learning
||Dabbah, 2009; Ertmer & Newby, 1993|
||Ally, 2008; Ertmer & Newby, 1993; Gardner; Information Processing; Novak; Piaget; Vygotsky|
||Ally, 2008; Anderson; Ertmer & Newby, 1993; Gagne; Information Processing; Merrill; Reigeluth|
||Bandura; Ertmer & Newby, 1993; Paivio|
||Ally, 2008; Ertmer & Newby, 1993; Hung, 2001; Information Processing|
||Ally, 2008; Ausubel; Bartlett; Bruner; Ertmer & Newby, 1993; Information Processing; Mental Models; Novak; Wertheimer|
|Higher Level Thinking Skills:
||Ally, 2008; Bandura; Bloom; Ertmer & Newby, 1993; Gagne; Facione, 1990; Information Processing; Keller; Rumelhart & Norman; Schank; Weiner; Zeldin et al., 2008|
Cognitive tools are “generalizable computer tools that are intended to engage and facilitate cognitive processing” (Kommers, Jonassen, & Mayes, 1992, as cited in Jonassen, n.d., Purpose ). In addition, “cognitive tools and environments activate cognitive learning strategies and critical thinking” (Jonassen, n.d., Learners as Thinkers). Although cognitive tools are deemed useful for constructivist approaches, they are also relevant for cognitive approaches; they they go beyond technologies such as Intelligent Tutoring Systems(cognitivist due to their efficient delivery of information and immediate feedback), and further engagement, reflection, and critical thinking skills (Cognitive tools, n.d.; Jonassen, n.d.)
Specific technologies can fulfill the roles of cognitive tools in an educational environment:
|Roles of Cognitive Tools||Examples||Specific Technologies|
|I. Information Seeking:
These tools allow student to retrieve and identify information through learning situations that require the seeking of information.
|II. Information Presentation:
These tools enable information to be presented in a meaningful and appropriate representation.
|III. Knowledge Organization:
These support students by allowing them to use a tool to establish relationships among information by structuring or restructuring information by manipulating information.
|IV. Knowledge Integration:
Such tools allow students to connect new information to prior knowledge therefore students are building a larger array of information.
(Robertson, Elliot, & Robinson, 2007, Cognitive Tools Affordances )
Relevance of Cognitivist Approaches
Cognitivist approaches to learning are relevant to today’s educators. Pratt (n.d.) cautions “while I do not argue with the basic tenets of constructivism, I do resist the rush to adopt any single, dominant view of learning or teaching” (p. 1). Hung (2001) advises that “instead of regarding the different learning theories as discordant, we rather adopt the instructional approaches derived from each of the learning theories and situate them in the appropriate instructional context based on the learning objectives” (Conclusion). Ertmer and Newby (1993) suggest that the best theoretical approach depends on the learner’s experience with the knowledge, and the level of cognitive processing required by the task; behaviourist approaches can allow the learner to master content (know what), cognitivist approaches are better for problem-solving with facts and rules applied in unfamiliar situations (know how), and constructivist approaches are better for ill-defined problems (reflection-in-action).
In a Distributed Learning (DL) program, parents are very involved in helping their children learn. The parents are not trained teachers, and have difficulty with using pedagogy to inform their practices at home. The parents find value in the efficient delivery method inherent in cognitivist approaches. DL students in programs that have social/interactive components ( face-to-face classes or online discussions) can use the knowledge and skills learned from a cognitivist approach, from content to critical thinking and problem-solving strategies, to engage in knowledge construction. Pratt (n.d.) states “that teachers are ‘pedagogical engineers’ with the responsibility to plan a lesson(s) with the most relevant instructional approaches and technologies at his or her disposal” (Conclusion). In a DL program, it is the teacher’s responsibility to understand the needs of parents and learners; this makes it even more important that teachers understand and choose the most relevant approach.
- Ally, M. (2008). Foundations of educational theory for online learning. In T. Anderson (Ed.) Theory and practice of online learning (pp. 15-43). Retrieved February 11, 2009, from http://www.aupress.ca/index.php/books/120146
- Chomsky, Noam. (1967). A review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. Retrieved February 8, 2009, from http://chomsky.info/articles/1967----.htm
- Cognitive theories of learning. (n.d.). Retrieved February 8, 2009, from NSW HSC Online Web site: http://hsc.csu.edu.au/pro_dev/teaching_online/how_we_learn/cognitive.html
- Dabbagh, N. (2009). The Instructional Design Knowledge Base. Retrieved February 10, 2009, from Nada Dabbagh’s Homepage, George Mason University, Instructional Technology Program Web site: http://classweb.gmu.edu/ndabbagh/Resources/IDKB/index.htm
- Driscoll, M. P. (2005). Interactive theories of cognitive development. In Custom course materials ETEC 512. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia, Bookstore. (Reprinted from Psychology of Learning for Instruction, pp. 227-244, 2005, Toronto, ON: Pearson).
- Ertmer, P. and Newby, T. (1993). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6 (4), 50-72. Retrieved February 9, 2009, from http://uow.ico5.janison.com/ed/subjects/edgi911w/readings/ertmerp1.pdf
- Facione, P.A. (1990). Critical thinking: A statement of expert consensus for purposes of educational assessment and instruction, executive summary - “The Delphi Report”. Retrieved February 3, 2009, from http://www.insightassessment.com/pdf_files/DEXadobe.PDF
- From behaviorism to social cognition?? (n.d.). Retrieved February 12, 2009, from Information on Self-Efficacy: A Community of Scholars Web site: http://des.emory.edu/mfp/banconversion.html
- Hung, D. (2001). Theories of learning and computer-mediated instructional technologies. Educational Media International. doi: 10.1080/0952398011010511 4
- Information processing. (n.d.). Retrieved February 8, 2009, from NSW HSC Online Web site: http://hsc.csu.edu.au/pro_dev/teaching_online/how_we_learn/information.html
- Jonassen, D. H. (n.d.). Technology as cognitive tools: Learners as designers. Retrieved February 14, 2009, from the Instructional Technology Forum Web site: http://itech1.coe.uga.edu/itforum/paper1/paper1.html
- Learning Theories Knowledgebase. (2009, February). Constructivist theories at Learning-Theories.com. Retrieved February 11, 2009 from http://www.learning-theories.com/constructivist-theories
- Novak, J.D. (2007). Ausubel's assimilation learning theory. In Custom course materials ETEC 512. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia, Bookstore. (Reprinted from Learning, Creating, and Using Knowledge: Concept Maps as Facilitative Tools in Schools and Corporations, pp. 49-78, 1998, Mahwah, NJ: Earlbaum).
- Pratt, D. D. (n.d.). Good teaching: One size fits all? Retrieved February 14, 2009, from Teaching Perspectives Inventory Web site: http://teachingperspectives.com/PDF/goodteaching.pdf
- Robertson, B., Elliot, L., & Robinson, D. (2007). Cognitive tools. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved February 16, 2009, from http://projects.coe.uga.edu/epltt/
- Schunk, D.H. (2007a). Information processing. In Custom course materials ETEC 512. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia, Bookstore. (Reprinted from Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective, pp. 136-189, 2004, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson).
- Schunk, D.H. (2007b). Social cognitive theory. In Custom course materials ETEC 512. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia, Bookstore. (Reprinted from Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective, pp. 83-136, 2004, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson).
- Using the web for learning: Background. (n.d.) Retrieved February 9, 2009, from VCCS Litonline Web site: http://vccslitonline.cc.va.us/usingweb/bckgrnd.htm
- Zeldin, A. L., Britner, S. L., & Pajares, F. (2008). A comparative study of the self-efficacy beliefs of successful men and women in mathematics, science, and technology careers preview. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 45(9), 1036-1058. doi: 10.1002/tea.20195
- BC Ministry of Education: Distributed Learning
- Cognitive Sciences
- Concept Maps
- Explorations in Learning and Instruction: The Theory into Practice Database
- How We Learn
- Innovative Learning: Cognitivism
- Instructional Design Knowledge Base
- ETEC 512
- Learning Theories.com
- Learning Theories Comparison
- Learning Theory Chart
- Piaget's Stages of Intellectual Development
- Prior Knowledge